meaning and origin of ‘Matthew effect’ and of ‘Matthew principle’





The term Matthew effect denotes the tendency for an established cause, institution, etc., to receive continued or increased support, while less established counterparts remain overlooked.

It was coined by the American sociologist Robert King Merton (1910-2003), who wrote the following in The Matthew Effect in Science, published in Science (Washington, D.C.) of 5th January 1968:

This complex pattern of the misallocation of credit for scientific work must quite evidently be described as “the Matthew effect,” for, as will be remembered, the Gospel According to St. Matthew puts it this way:

Robert K. Merton then quoted the gospel of Matthew, 25:29 [cf. footnote]:

(King James Version, 1611):
For vnto euery one that hath shall be giuen, and he shall haue abundance: but from him that hath not, shal be takē away, euen that which he hath.

Immediately after that scriptural quotation, Robert K. Merton explained:

Put in less stately language, the Matthew effect consists in the accruing of greater increments of recognition for particular scientific contributions to scientists of considerable repute and the withholding of such recognition from scientists who have not yet made their mark.

The earliest instances of Matthew effect in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2001) are from the above-mentioned paper published in Science of 5th January 1968 (Science is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – abbreviation: AAAS).

However, I have discovered that Robert K. Merton had already used the term during the 131st annual meeting of the AAAS, held at Montreal, Quebec, from 26th to 31st December 1964.

The earliest instances of Matthew effect that I have found are from an account of the opening day of that annual meeting, published in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) of 27th December 1964:

Matthew Effect
Scientists Tell How Success Is Parlayed
By William Hines
Star Staff Writer

Montreal—“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance . . .”
That familiar quotation, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, seems to hold good for such diverse folk as Nobel Prize-winners and Peruvian peons, two separate scientific reports delivered here yesterday indicate.
The reports were made on the opening day of the 131st annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
One paper dealt with the subsequent careers of scientists after they win the Nobel Prize, and the other examined the relationships of peasants in a serf-like feudalistic culture.
In both cases the “Matthew effect” was glaringly noticeable.
Prof. Robert K. Merton of Columbia University used the term “Matthew effect” to explain how “the eminent scientist tends to get proportionately great credit for contributions to science while the comparatively unknown scientist tends to get disproportionately little . . .”

Peasants Similarly Affected

Dr. Mario Vasquez of Cornell University showed how the same effect benefitted a few relatively prosperous peasants at the expense of their less fortunate neighbors on a big Peruvian estancial—until Cornell sociologists stepped in and upset the established order.
Vasquez was one of several scientists discussing the “Vicos experiment” which Cornell started in 1951 in cooperation with the government of Peru. The purpose of the experiment was to determine whether a backward area with a feudalistic regime could be brought into step with modern times.
The answer to this question, Vasquez and his colleagues agreed, was a resounding yes.
Vicos, the Peruvian plantation where the experiment was conducted, is reported to be well on the way to economic self-sufficiency. Education is getting a foothold there and the common people now have a voice in their own government.
There are probably a few dissatisfied souls at Vicos, however, who pine for the good old days. These are the peasants formerly known as “the wealthy ones” who were locally believed to be specially favored by God.

Advantages Parlayed

By the luck of the draw, or by some other initial means, “the wealthy ones” accumulated a few more head of cattle than their neighbors. This gave them a manure supply which enabled them to produce better crops and accumulate some cash.
The “wealthy ones” parlayed their initial advantage—plus above-average native prudence, apparently—into an almost life-and-death economic control over their less fortunate fellows. They were also able to escape such onerous details as military service, apparently through time-honored application of cash in the proper quarters.
But being a “wealthy one” was not entirely without drawbacks in the pre-Cornell Vicos. The wealthy were at all times supposed to show their wealth—keep up with Joneses, so to speak—in terms of clothes, housing, and such fipperies [?] as wooden house doors “made by professional carpenters.”
The position of the “wealthy ones” at the apex of the local peon society was constantly being reinforced, Vasquez explained.
That much the same thing happens with Nobel prize-winners was the central theme of Merton’s report.

“Names” Command Attention

Merton said a scientific paper bearing the name of a Nobel prize-winner generally gets more attention than one of equal merit by a less well-known scientist.
Many Nobel prize-winners—chiefly in the field of chemistry—reduce their output of professional papers after winning a big prize, Harriet Zuckerman, also of Columbia, reported.
But this, she said, is principally due to Nobel prize chemists, for some reason, getting administrative jobs and thereafter having no time for scientific research.
Merton said Nobel laureates know there is the built-in injustice to this system that constantly reinforces their already high reputations. But he indicated that—as in the case of the “wealthy ones” at Vicos—there is more than just sheer chance involved.
Outstanding scientists place great emphasis on finding important scientific problems, not only on solving problems that happen to come their way, Merton said.
“They have a marked self-confidence that if they wait long enough, they will hit upon an important problem or experiment rather than remain satisfied with doing pedestrian work on real but comparatively insignificant problems,” he said.
The Nobel-quality scientist generally has “exceptional ego-strength” and his self-confidence “at the extreme can be loosely described as attractive arrogance,” Merton said.

The second-earliest instances of Matthew effect that I have found are from the Kingsport Times-News (Kingsport, Tennessee) of 21st February 1965:

Credit In Science Often Goes To Wrong Persons

Montreal (HTNS)—While their able colleagues toil in obscurity, the scientific reputation of Nobel Laureates fattens continuously under an old hillbilly rule: Them That Has, Gets.
Dr. Robert K. Merton, chairman of the Sociology Department at New York’s Columbia University, said recently that the eminent scientist gets disproportionately great credit for his contributions, while lesser known lights get little for comparable work.
This phenomenon Dr. Merton labeled “The Matthew Effect,” after the gospel according to Matthew:
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
Dr. Merton, Giddings professor of sociology at Columbia, did not directly accuse the Nobelists of hogging scientific glory. But the fact that they get it, he said, works an injustice in two common situations.

Multiple Finds

The first arises when a Nobel Laureate publishes a scientific paper authored by himself and by several other, relatively unknown collaborators. The second occurs when two or more scientists score the same breakthrough independently, but only one has eminence in the field.
It is not generally known, Dr. Merton said, but “almost all” Nobel Laureates have been involved repeatedly in such “multiple discoveries.”
The sociologist offered the appraisal here at the 131st annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More than 1,000 scientists, representing 28 nations, have arrived in Montreal for this, the “World Series” of scientific conferences.

Defines Effect

To define his Matthew effect, Dr. Merton studies the daries [sic], letters, notebooks, papers and biographies written by or about a cross-section of workday scientists. Then he cross-checked interviews in depth with 41 of the 54 Science Laureates living in the U.S. The interviews were collected by Harriet Zuckerman of Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research.
Miss Zuckerman’s research demolished the myth that scientific breakthroughs are the handwork of laboratory hermits. About two-thirds of all papers published by the Nobel Laureates had one or more co-authors, she told the AAAS.

It is possible that the following use of Matthew effect represents an independent coinage of the term; in The Evening Press (Binghamton, New York) of 26th October 1983, Mark Winheld reported that, during a conference on the Johnson City School District’s innovative mastery learning programme, Lorin W. Anderson, of the University of South Carolina,

said mastery learning — the concept that most students can learn whatever the schools want to teach them — is the best weapon to combat what he called the “Matthew effect” prevalent in traditional American education.
In the Bible, Anderson noted, the apostle Matthew says those who have something will receive even more, while those who have nothing will have even more taken away from them.
The “Matthew effect” is that students who start with educational advantages receive the best teaching, while those who start without such advantages receive the poorest teaching, Anderson said.




The term Matthew principle denotes the principle that those who are already provided for will receive more.

The earliest instance in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2001) dates from 1976; this is odd, because Robert K. Merton used Matthew principle in the above-mentioned paper published in Science of 5th January 1968:

Centers of demonstrated scientific excellence are allocated far larger resources for investigation than centers which have yet to make their mark. In turn, their prestige attracts a disproportionate share of the truly promising graduate students. […]
These social processes of social selection that deepen the concentration of top scientific talent create extreme difficulties for any efforts to counteract the institutional consequences of the Matthew principle in order to produce new centers of scientific excellence.

The following use of Matthew principle might represent an independent coinage of the term; in Labor fails to cut school aid to wealthy, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of 3rd December 1971, Mr. Doube, Labor’s shadow Minister for Education, was reported as saying that

some of the schools, whose alleged main function was to inculcate Christian values in young boys and girls, showed a remarkable disregard of these values when it came to the question of accepting money.
“They seem to be faithful followers of the Matthew principle: ‘To him that hath all shall be given and to him that hath not all shall be taken away,’” he said.


Note: The gospel of Matthew, 13:12, expresses the same idea:

(King James Version, 1611):
For whosoeuer hath, to him shall be giuen, and he shall haue more abundance: but whosoeuer hath not, from him shall be taken away, euen that hee hath.


Robert King Merton (1910-2003)Robert King Merton (1910-2003)
photograph: COLUMBIA250

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